Circling the Drain

by Steve, October 3rd, 2007

Fifteen months after a city and county audit requested a justification for Portland Public Schools’ open transfer policy, a committee of the school board will take its first look tomorrow. The student support and community relations committee, chaired by new school board member and Neighborhood Schools Alliance founding member Ruth Adkins meets tomorrow at four p.m. Dan Ryan and Dilafruz Williams are the other members of this committee.

This has been my main cause on this blog for a few months. I have crunched the district’s enrollment numbers, and shown that the open transfer policy effectively redlines the poorest neighborhoods of Portland, transferring tens of millions of dollars of public investment annually to wealthier neighborhoods.

I have reason to be concerned that the school board will attempt to tweak things around the edge of this policy, and will not consider the simplest, most reasonable response, which would immediately address the issue of neighborhood funding inequity: curtailing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

Here’s an analogy for you. You’ve got a bathtub full of water. Somebody pulls the plug. You get a group of people debating how to keep the water in the tub, and they’re throwing out all kinds of ideas. Perhaps we can convince the water that it’s better to stay in the tub. Maybe we can make it more complicated to leave the tub. But as the water circles the drain, nobody suggests the obvious.

Put the plug back in the drain.

The fundamental problem is the open transfer policy. There is no justification for it. Why keep it?

Here’s another thought. We’re screwing the pooch all across the district, not just in the redlined neighborhoods, where educational opportunities are limited, and schools are left with disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students. Things are bad in the green zone, too, where overcrowding also limits and degrades educational opportunities. Things have gotten so bad, we’re verging on driving out the middle class. Which is ironic, given that open transfers (according to a popular argument) have supposedly kept the middle class in PPS schools. This is one middle class parent giving Beaverton a serious look.

We have a perfectly good example in our western suburb, where there are no special focus or magnet programs in elementary school, and no transfers, either. They have a similar demographic to Portland, but none of the problems of racial isolation or funding inequities.

It’s time to put some pressure on our school board, and particularly the members of the committee taking a first look at this problem. If you care about this, give a call or drop an e-mail to Ruth Adkins, Dan Ryan and Dilafruz Williams.

27 Responses to “Circling the Drain”

  1. Comment from Nicole:

    I am through with providing public input to the school board. As a Jefferson cluster parent, I have found it to be a complete and utter waste of time. However, I’m glad that you hold out hope that they will listen to public input and take action to create a more equitable system.

    I agree with your points above. I would just add that in conjunction with curtailing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfer PPS needs to revise boundaries so that students are assigned to a neighborhood school that is located in their neighborhood as much as possible, and that curriculum offerings need to be more equal among schools, especially at the middle and high school level.

    Simply curtailing transfers and increasing enrollment at the K-8s and Gates-style small high school academies won’t provide educational opportunities equal to what is provided for students at the district’s middle schools and comprehensive high schools.

  2. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Nicole, I’m glad you mentioned the boundary revisions again. Yes, this should be priority, too. I just talked with my mom yesterday — she said that when I was a kid, our assigned school was Gregory Heights (now Roseway Heights, with the merger with Rose City Park — this will make a long walk (or necessitate a drive) for too many families, in my humble opinion).

    Anyway, mom mentioned that the older neighbor kids went to Gregory Heights, but by the time school was starting for me, I was assigned to Harvey Scott — a longer walk, by a few blocks, but no busy streets to cross. (We would have had to cross Fremont St. and Sandy Blvd. to get to Gregory Heights.)

    My kindergarten class was huge, so half of the kids went to Sacajawea for kinder, then came to Harvey Scott for first grade. It was divided geographically, by who lived closer to Prescott, and was not a big deal.

    Her question was: PPS used to re-do the boundaries to make it easier for the families and kids. Why is this such a hassle now? It doesn’t need to be.

    (ps don’t lose hope.)

  3. Comment from becky:

    speaking of revising boundaries today is Walk/Bike to School Day! (* )

  4. Comment from Nicole:

    Wacky Mommy,
    Thanks for mentioning the factor of busy streets in boundary decisions. I agree that sometimes it’s better for boundaries to assign students to a school that isn’t their closest if it helps avoid crossing dangerous streets. And don’t worry I haven’t lost hope. We love our neighborhood elementary school, and I know there is a lot to celebrate in our public schools in spite of poor leadership from the board on some of the most important issues.

    And Yes! we participated in Walk & Bike to School Day this morning. It was fun, and we got soaked. At least I did. My son remained comfortably warm and dry in his bike trailer bubble.

  5. Comment from Steve:

    Nicole, the report I presented to the board last week recommends a comprehensive boundary review as a necessary prerequisite to curtailing transfers. Many schools in neighborhoods that have faced closures are at capacity, even while they are well below neighborhood population. I also recommended a comprehensive review of siting of special focus and magnet programs, especially those that are co-located with neighborhood schools.

    You can read the report here (383KB PDF), if you’re interested.

  6. Comment from Terry:

    Love the metaphor, Steve. Problem is, maybe the powers that be don’t want to keep the water in the tub.

    That’s what I think. How you gonna promote choice without draining out the stagnant water?

  7. Comment from Steve:

    The metaphor applies not only to funding in our poor neighborhoods, but also to middle class patience with the flaky schools leadership we’ve seen over the last decade. I’m hearing from more and more folks from both sides of the red line that they’re fed up with this crap, and may not take it much longer.

    Do I want to move to Beaverton? No. Am I considering it anyway? Yes.

  8. Comment from Sunny:

    What’s really foul is that the PPS transfer policy touts “choice” as the driving force, while in the name of “choice” this transfer policy has REMOVED “choice” for thousands of PPS students.

    These students have no “choice” to attend a well-rounded comprehensive high school in their neighborhood; these students have no “choice” of the many, many curricular programs and offerings other students receive in their neighborhood – yet these children live in the same city and are enrolled in the same school district!

    These students’ only “choice” is to attend small focus-option high schools with programs they DID NOT CHOOSE and do not match with their educational plans, as required by the Oregon Department of Education. What kind of “choice” is this?

    In order to truly increase “choice”, all PPS neighborhood schools (at all levels) must have equitable curricular offerings across the board. All middle and high schools must be comprehensive, with a wide array of curricular offerings.

    Focus-option programs can still be offered for those families desiring a specialized and/or smaller setting, but neighborhood-school-to-neighborhood school transfers must be flat out eliminated or at the very least curtailed so that no neighborhood school (at any level) is allowed to suffer enrollment loss to the point that its curricular offerings do not remain equal with those of all other PPS neighborhood schools.

    As Steve said, that’s the way it is In Beaverton, where all students receive equitable curricular choices – regardless of their skin color, the income level of their parents or how affluent their neighborhood is. Neighborhood schools are their priority and default. Beaverton, while offering many smaller focus-option programs, would NEVER allow any of them (or another neighborhood school) to jeopardize the integrity of any neighborhood school. They adjust boundaries as necessary to keep enrollment/FTE equal so that educational opportunities remain equitable.

    In addition, Beaverton School District has a “Consistent Discipline Policy” that treats ALL students equal – no open campus for some but not for others garbage like here in Portland – which led to the horrible recent racist discussions on cyberspace.

    In particular, Portland Public Schools practices equal-opportunity discrimination when it comes to families living in the Jefferson cluster. Because the neighborhood and school population has been majority non-white in recent years, the students have been used as guinea pigs repeatedly and offered sub-par educational opportunities for years – while transfers were allowed unchecked to the point of closures and abysmal failure.

    Now the demographics have changed, and there is currently blatant racial discrimination against white Jefferson parents and residents – including many, many incidents in the Jefferson building itself – while this district does nothing!

    I am sick to death of the way Portland Public Schools is run. Its policies are racist and immoral.

    While I don’t want to move from Portland, if the PPS enrollment/transfer policy is not changed to result in immediate equity of educational opportunities, I will pay the tuition so that my children can attend Beaverton Schools and get an excellent education in a richly diverse setting.

  9. Comment from Neloa:

    I have been following this for a while, but I’m new to online stuff. I’m afraid of messing up my child’s chance of getting into a “regular” highschool next year if my name should come up somewhere.
    I have a lot I’d like to say, as a low income parent of
    a TAG student, living in the Jefferson area since 2000. He has not gone to the neighborhood schools.
    No one has ever asked why, and no one has ever asked what we wanted at Jefferson. I did not realize
    there were other people out there…We’ been so isolated.
    So, as my kid would say, “a little help here?”

  10. Comment from Zarwen:


    You hit it on the head with “no one has ever asked what we wanted at Jefferson.” No one from PPS has EVER asked any Jeff parents what they wanted, and that is the crux of the problem. Trust me, you got LOTS of company.

  11. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Zarwen, I have a plan for improving immensely the input in the Jefferson community. Can you suggest someone on the board or in the administration who would be interested in genuinely considering such a plan? After all I am not without credentials.

    Some days I think I am pretty funny, Zarwen.

  12. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Steve B., you are always a funny guy.

    I e-mail the principals at my kids’ school and Jeff, the Jeff cluster director, the school board and the superintendent pretty regularly. They’ve actually implemented a few of my suggestions. Ha! (File that under: Things I Never Thought Would Happen.) I would recommend you all do the same. And keep print-outs of everything for your files, so you have dates of correspondence, e-mail addresses, all that.

    And I show up for principal/parent and PTA meetings occasionally, even though they’re not my favorite thing. I really enjoy the way everyone braces themselves as soon as I raise my hand. (Yes. It’s a party wherever I go.)

    If anyone has any ideas/concerns/big plans concerning PPS (or Jefferson cluster in particular), please e-mail them to me (my e-mail address is on my website) and I’ll print them out and take them with me next time I take a meeting.

  13. Comment from Zarwen:


    Did you get to read “The Final Jefferson Redesign” from Michele Schultz’s campaign website? Would you take that with you to a meeting?

    Yes, Steve B., you are absolutely hilarious.

  14. Comment from Thomas Le Ngo:

    Aren’t school districts required to allow students at schools classified as “failing” by NCLB to transfer to other schools?

  15. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Got it, printed it out, and will take it with me next week.

    Yes. We don’t like transferring; we prefer to stay put. But what are you going to do?

  16. Comment from Steve:

    Exactly one elementary school in all of PPS is under sanction with NCLB (and I believe that is being appealed). Many, many people bring up NCLB, as if to excuse the radical transfer system that is entrenched at PPS. It’s a red herring.

  17. Comment from megs:

    one elementary school in all of PPS is under sanction with NCLB

    Which one is that? I had not heard about it. I have to agree that the transfer system needs fixin’…but…NCLB also needs to be repealed. If you haven’t contacted your Congress folks, please do so now.

    And here is a link to a Portland parent’s thoughts on the new scripted literacy program PPS has adopted. We have been told the Reading Street Police will be coming to schools to ask children questions to make sure teachers are on the right page in the script.

  18. Comment from Neloa:

    Can anyone out there come up with a list or chart or something showing the classes that are actually
    offered at each high school? No one believes me when I tell them how limited the “small schools” are.
    The school websites seem to be all PR or vague (Jeff) to the point of being meaningless. And who
    would be responsible for “truth in advertising”?
    I know that our little SE magnet has outright falsehoods about its program on its site…

  19. Comment from NoPo Parent:

    Megs – can you say more about the Reading Street police?

  20. Comment from megs:

    All I can say is that the Office Of Teaching and Learning has indicated that teachers are expected to follow the agenda in Reading Street…and as a teacher..I have to say that in the early grades it is less than appropriate…and people who have attended meetings for building facilitators (recruited to be curriculum facilitators) have come back from these meetings and said that the OTL has indicated people will be sent out to buildings to question students…..i.e. “What did you learn this week?” in order to ascertain if the script is being followed or not. Pretty heavy handed, don’t you think. Some folks think that it is because the OTL has people vying for power up there, and they are determined to impose their power over the teachers and the new curriculum.

  21. Comment from Zarwen:

    Last I heard, Jean Fischer was the “Interim Manager” of the OTL. I know she’s still working for PPS; does she still have that title? Either way, it’s long past time she retired!

  22. Comment from NoPo Parent:

    Does anyone know anything about the Kindergarten assessments that are being done? Are they using DIBELS? I was told of a PPS school using Kindergarten assessments that determined who the “high-achievers” were and then everyone else. The Kindergarten class was divided into two sections, the “high-achievers” in one and and everyone else in the other. Is there any truth to this kind of practice in PPS?

  23. Comment from megs:

    Kindergarteners are assessed with a ton of literacy and math assessments. Data. It is supposed to inform instruction, of course, but it has become something else in the last couple years, as the district has demanded every assessment in the book be done and then reported via computer to the district. Data driven…not improve instruction driven..

  24. Comment from FREEAK:

    Wow, this everything that I have been up against trying to get Free Required Equal Education Access for my KIDS (FREAK). Am I bad because I am going to use the Student Choice option? Our elementary school closed a few years back. Guess what? We are now Vernon (Tubman but Vernon is going pre-k-8) and Jefferson!! What a JOKE. We have tried, I go to the PTA, Principal/parent Coffees and maybe, maybe a handful of parents show up. What am I to do? We love, LOVE our home. It is our home. Our children love it, but since our son started his first year of school at Vernon we are a wreck and are seriously thinking of selling because we were told that since the school isn’t “failing” there is little chance to get into a school of our choice.
    Forget magnets, special programs, or focus, we don’t even have music for any grades, we don’t have science fairs and math clubs. We have “diverisity and multi-cultural training”.
    There is absolutely nothing EQUAL about the Education Access for our KIDS in the Portland Public Schools. By the way, we are 1.5 miles away from Grant but have been redistricted to Jefferson almost 2.5 miles away and accross several major streets.
    Honeslty what do we do? Move? Give up our home we bought for our kids? As a native Oregonian I never thought I would see this crisis here.
    Will screaming help? Fighting for what is right? My son has been in public education for not even 2 months and the flaws of this segregated education system are pathetic. How does the public not see it? The communities we live in, how can they ignore it? The media, how can they NOT report on it?
    Really, I care, some say too much and to those I say they don’t care enough. If you all say to move, then I guess that is what we will have to do. It can’t do more damage then this screwed up educational system.
    Signed, FREEAK

  25. Comment from NoPo Parent:

    Hi, FREEAK. Come to a meeting sponsored by Portland Area Rethinking Schools. Get involved. Stay. Fight.

    TGIF — with a point: “Reclaiming Our Classrooms: Making Room for Teachers”

    When: Friday, October 26th. 4 pm, social; 4:30-6 pm program

    Where: Hinson Baptist Church, SE 20th and Salmon (enter on Salmon, across from the Eastbank Farmers Market location — plenty of parking)

  26. Comment from FREEAK:

    NoPo are kids welcome to come too?

  27. Comment from NoPo Parent:

    FREEAK – I think they sometimes have childcare for these meetings, but not this one.